Name-Calling

A lesson in humility, confidence and grace.

When I started college, there was another freshman who by all accounts looked exactly like me. Or me like her. Same height and build, same hair color and cut, same bounce when we walked up the stairs. Evidently, the resemblance was striking enough that several of my friends – as well as hers – frequently mistook one for the other. I initially ignored people shouting “Hey Debbie!” at me, not realizing they were trying to get my attention. More than once, a friend complained to me that I had rudely ignored them when, in fact, it was my look-alike they had encountered.

As the experience repeated itself, I realized that her friends genuinely thought I was Debbie. At that point, I would turn, wave and say, “Sorry. I’m not Debbie.” But this reaction still felt awkward. Eventually, I surrendered – as did she – to friendly folks calling me her name. It was more affable, and frankly more natural, simply to smile and wave. I responded to the name “Debbie” for the next four years, even though we didn’t know each other. Never had a class or coffee together. It wasn’t even that big a school, but we never seemed to be in the same place at the same time. Until we finally met at a party our senior year about two months before graduation. We saw each other in the crowded room and broke into mutual grins and a hug. No introduction required. We already knew each other’s names.

Charlotte was not an easy name to grow into. As a young girl, the only other Charlottes were grandmas and ancient aunties. I was, in fact, named after a grandmother. My other grandmother was Gladys. As old-fashioned names go, I prefer Charlotte. For a little girl, however, it felt like a very big name. That’s a lot of bubbles to fill in on those scantron standardized test sheets. Only rarely were my Valentine’s cards spelled correctly. “Sharlet,” “Sharolette,” “Charlit.” There are so many creative ways to misspell Charlotte. There were a lot of spider jokes. There was no baby princess.

Even as an adult, I often tell the barista that my name is Sam simply because Charlotte is too difficult. Too long to fit easily on side of the cup and too hard to spell. Thanks to the young princess, most baristas can now spell Charlotte, so I use it more often. Because the fact of the matter is that it is lovely to be known by name. A name means identity and individuality. To call someone by name is to invite connection. But once in a while, to be called the wrong name is a gift of grace.

Tim’s first wife was Debbie, and when Tim and I started dating, lots of people accidentally called me by her name. In all fairness, Tim and Debbie were high school sweethearts. So when Debbie died from cancer at age 41, Tim and Debbie had been “Tim and Debbie” for 25 years. That’s a hard habit to break. But still, it stung, and I was grateful to those friends and family who made a concerted effort to call me by my own name. It did strike me that of all the names I could have been called, Debbie was the one I was accustomed to. It might be coincidence, but I consider it a small grace.

I’m not advocating calling people the wrong names. There was that one notably wretched occasion when Tim inadvertently called me Debbie. Regrettably, there were one or two more when I accidentally called him Sam. We found our way through those missteps. But there are rare circumstances, I have learned, when being called the wrong name is actually a compliment.

There is one person who flatters me by calling me by a name not my own. Debbie’s mother. The first time she called me by her daughter’s name, I don’t know if she even realized she had done so. She was choreographing a family photo, and she directed me right into the frame with the rest of her brood. I was slightly unnerved, but she seemed completely natural. It doesn’t happen very often, but when she calls me Debbie I am honored. She includes me as her own. That Debbie’s own mother is comfortable enough to call me by her daughter’s name is truly a grace.

On my run this morning, a cyclist passed me and – clearly mistaking me for someone else – waved, smiled and yelled, “Hi Debbie!” I smiled and waved back at her, because people have been calling me Debbie for 30 years.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And small graces.

2 thoughts on “Name-Calling

  1. Hi Charlotte, what a wonderful post! your kind spirit shines through these lines… It’s been a long time since I last checked your post 😦 , it seems that I miss a lot! I hope to see you more often after the school starts.

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